Health Notes

Epidemiology – The Medical Detective

Rudolf Kotula, MD

by Dr. Rudolf Kotula on May 14, 2010

I have recently been appointed the Epidemiologist for both the Methodist Physicians Clinic and the soon-to-be-opened Methodist Women’s Hospital.

What does that mean?

An Epidemiologist is sort of like being a medical detective. If a patient has a mysterious infection, an epidemiologist may be consulted to determine what the disease is, and how to combat it.  An epidemiologist is looking clues, like a detective at the crime.

Many physicians help patients “manage” a disease.  Hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes, asthma; for example.

One of the reasons I enjoy being an epidemiologist is that I have the opportunity to diagnose and eradicate an infection or disease.  As a doctor, that is incredibly gratifying.

Infectious Disease physicians are like medical detectives.

Infectious Disease physicians are like medical detectives.

Super Sleuths

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) even have the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS), dedicated to epidemiologic investigations, research, and public health surveillance both nationally and internationally. This elite team has responded to cases as diverse as H1N1 in multiple U.S. cities, mass exposure to a rabid bat carcass in Montana, and monkeypox in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The Case of the Raspberry Birthday Cake

Although not as diverse, I have treated severe infections including the H1N1 outbreaks last year.  I was asked some time ago to conduct an investigation of an illness following a birthday party. Through investigation and analysis of lab work I discovered the source of the infection: an intestinal parasite called Cyclospora cayetanensis.

Imported raspberries on the birthday cake were discovered to be the source. All party-goers were cured through antibiotic therapy, however their taste for raspberry birthday cake has undoubtedly diminished.

Inspired?  Want to learn more about epidemiology?

There are some great sources out there – both for adults and children.  I recommend:

The Centers for Disease Control:

Operation Infection Detection, an animated story of the 1999 West Nile virus epidemic in New York City.  The story explains how the epidemiologists diagnosed the disease and used 4 key tools to devise a “cure” for the situation:

  1. Epidemiology
  2. Laboratory Science
  3. Statistics
  4. Applied Science

The Immune Platoon: your body’s immunity is like a team of super heroes keeping you safe from infection and diseases in this animated tool.

Infectious Diseases Society of America:

What is an infectious disease specialist? This information explains the background of infectious disease specialists and when you, or your physician may request their help.

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